My daughter had the assignment of writing a speech about any person. She chose to write about her great-grandmother, my grandmother, who had passed away years before she was born. She discovered that my grandmother was strong-willed, frugal, hard-working, and intelligent. Born in 1906, she epitomized what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation,” a generation who lived through the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War. They experienced substantial advancements in both technology and civil rights. This generation consisted of ordinary people who were committed to God, their families, and their nation–ordinary people who demonstrated extraordinary acts of heroism and resilience. Although many from the Greatest Generation are no longer alive, we can still impart their education, livelihood, and priorities, so that our children and grandchildren, the Zoomers and Alphas, can continue to benefit from their wisdom.
Some of the Greatest Generation were educated in a time period before Dewey’s progressive education ideas were prevalent, before phonetics were abandoned, and well before programs like social-emotional learning (SEL) and restorative justice were implemented. Many rural schools were one-room school houses that more closely resembled homeschool co-ops than today’s public schools. For the Greatest Generation, supplies were limited, buildings were basic, instruction was from the teacher, modern educational technology was non-existent, and personal responsibility was encouraged.
In contrast, modern school buildings can cost upwards of $30-40 million, children are inundated with technology involving little direct instruction, and subjective, rather than objective, justice programs are enforced. A MIT Technology Review article titled, How classroom technology is holding students back, questions the value of technology in the classroom and postulates that in some cases educational technology can be a hindrance, especially when being used as a substitute for human instruction. The key to improving education does not lie in the lobbyists, in technology, or in the plethora of programs sponsored by politically-motivated billionaires and corporations. Perhaps, the key to improving education lies in the simplicity of the past, using proven methods that have been successful for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
The Greatest Generation prioritized Christianity. My grandmother was a teacher for forty-six years. She started teaching at a one-room school at the age of sixteen. She walked ten miles to get to the school, and she would stay with the families of students during the week. Although she was not particularly religious, she would share a Biblical devotion with her students every day.
In 1949, thirty-seven states had Bible reading as part of their public-school curriculum. “[To] constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war,” President Eisenhower added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. “In God We Trust” became the United States official motto in 1956.
Considerable changes to public-school classrooms occurred in the 1960s when the US Supreme Court decided against prayer in public schools and against school sponsorship of religious activities. In 1965, the numbers of those claiming Protestant as their religion started to decline. In the 1980s, the US Supreme Court declared the Ten Commandments in public schools to be unconstitutional.
Today public-school classrooms are devoid of Christianity, but they are not devoid of “spirituality and religion.” Alex Newman’s article, UN Pushes New Age Spirituality on Children With ‘Neuroscience’, details how “spirituality” is being injected into classrooms. Columbia University’s Collaborative for Spirituality in Education (CSE) advocates for “spiritual” public education. Spiritual practices, such as mindfulness are commonplace in today’s public-school classrooms.
Family life and community were priorities for the Greatest Generation. Although divorces reached a peak around 1980 and have been decreasing since, the divorce rates in the first half of the nineteenth century were still lower than today. A decline in the number of marriages started to occur in the 1970s. Around the same time, our nation began to experience a sharp increase in the number of children born outside of marriage. Marriage and family are not valued in the same way they once were.
The Greatest Generation relied on their communities. My grandfather and grandmother had an apple orchard. One year my grandfather experienced a heart attack in the middle of harvest season. The local church took up an offering for them. Members of the community picked apples and assisted with the harvest. For the Greatest Generation, the local church and the community represented the main source of charitable giving. They did not look to outside foundations with global interests or bureaucratic federal agencies to provide for their local needs. Neighbors would help neighbors.
The Greatest Generation were content. Experiencing the Great Depression, they learned to differentiate between needs and wants. In 1941, the US National debt was $989 billion. Today, it is over $31 trillion. The debt started to rise drastically around 1982. Ever since, materialism, feckless spending, corruption, and greed have caused it to spiral out of control. The ever-growing national debt and financial instability subjects our children to increasing inflation and cripples their economic opportunities.
The Greatest Generation were more in touch with the natural world. One thing I remember about my grandmother is that even into her advanced years, she was an avid gardener. During both WWI and WWII “victory gardens” were encouraged, and most American grew at least some of their own food. By 1944, small “victory gardens produced…more than 40 percent of all the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States.” Today, gardening would teach Zoomers and Alphas important life-lessons on how to grow, nurture, and cultivate while serving as an outlet for them to “reduce stress” and increase their “social connections.”
When we think of the Greatest Generation, our minds conjure up images of valiant soldiers storming the banks of Normandy or those back at home working long hours contributing to the war effort. We think of the tight-knit, quiet families spending time together in the evenings after the war was over. It was a time when most neighborhood streets were safe enough for children to play and roam.
Today our kids are hurting, in a big way. They are being bombarded with immoral, divisive, and destructive messages. Nearly one in three girls has seriously contemplated suicide with 14% stating they have been raped. School violence, drug addictions, and mental health issues are commonplace among our children and grandchildren. The moral degradation and the sad state of our nation will require radical solutions. It will require us in love and humility to alter our beliefs and viewpoints, reevaluate our priorities and commitments–to turn back the clock and determine what was successful, what worked and what did not work. It will require us to unravel the ideology that has led to a crumbling society since the 1960s. As Americans, we are fortunate that we can look to the past to help guide our future. In doing so, may the next generation become the greatest.
Brokaw, T. (2000). The Greatest Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections. Random House.